3/26/08, 5:35 p.m.
Yesterday I mistakenly wrote and subsequently reiterated last night in a comment that the percent of flights covered by air marshals is in the “double digits.” Frankly, this was a result of my haste to provide information and to get the truth out quickly about our federal air marshal program. It is simply not appropriate to discuss percentage of flights covered.
In no way was I trying to provide information that is inappropriate for release or to mislead the public in any way. The definitive numbers that we can provide about the program are; the number of marshals we currently have is in the thousands, our true attrition rate (that is any air marshal leaving the agency for any reason) is approximately 6.5 percent since the expansion of the program in the Fall of 2001 and that we deploy air marshals based on intelligence and risk.
Since launching this blog 60 days ago, our only goal has been direct, honest, personal communications with the traveling public. I sincerely apologize for this error and hope that it has not degraded or devalued the important dialogue that has been started on this forum.
I have edited the post below to reflect the facts of the matter. Again, I apologize for any confusion this may have caused.
EOS Blog Team
CNN aired a story on Anderson Cooper 360 from investigative reporter Drew Griffin on the federal air marshal service. In the piece, anonymous air marshals, pilots and other "experts" discuss "staggering" attrition rates and make assertions that less than 1 percent of flights are actually covered by air marshals. Below are the facts on how we deploy air marshals, air marshal attrition rates, and the reality behind this highly successful program.
"Of the 28,000 commercial airline flights per day in the U.S., less than 1 percent are protected by federal air marshals."
"I would have to guess it's fewer than 1 percent of all my flights," the pilot said. "I'm guessing by coverage of when I go to those cities, fewer than 1 percent."
"That means that a terrorist or other criminal bent on taking over an aircraft would be confronted by a trained air marshal on as few as 280 daily flights."
"One pilot who crisscrosses the country and flies internationally told CNN he hasn't seen an air marshal on board one of his flights in six months. A federal law enforcement officer with is not affiliated with the air marshal service...has gone months without seeing a marshal on board."
While the exact number of flights that air marshals protect is classified because we don't want terrorists to play a mathematical guessing game based on percentages, the actual number of air marshals employed by the agency is in the thousands.
Beyond the number of flights that air marshals physically cover, the more important question to ask is which flights are air marshals flying on. Using our intelligence-driven, risk-based approach, we deploy marshals on the highest risk flights. That means a team of air marshals might be on one flight based on intel and none may be on the next.
Simply parroting a sound bite from an anonymous expert or a pilot that flies to New York once a day with no knowledge of scheduling or intel isn't accurately portraying the situation. Random "experts" hardly encompass a qualified opinion on air marshal deployments. The bottom line is that there are thousands of hard-working, dedicated marshals flying day in and day out to protect the traveling public both domestically and abroad. We clearly told CNN their numbers were inaccurate and they chose to report these numbers anyway.
"Air marshals who spoke with CNN anonymously...are especially troubled by the lack of coverage on flight in and out of Washington and New York."
Flying air marshals speaking on condition of anonymity simply do not have access to global scheduling information. Every single day of the year, air marshal schedules are altered to cover specific, high-threat flights. That means on one day, many flights into and out of New York and D.C. may be covered and on other days, less flights may be covered.
The role of not releasing specific numbers of marshals or flights carrying marshals is an important one. We should not tip our hand to terrorists and let them know the mathematical probability of air marshals being on flights they may be interested in taking over or otherwise disrupting.
We fully desire terrorists to not know for sure if marshals will be on board their flight so that they will have to factor them into any plots involving aircraft.
"Air marshals told CNN that while the TSA tells the public it cannot divulge numbers...the agency tells its own agents that at least 5 percent of all flights are covered."
"One marshal said that while security is certainly one reason the numbers are kept secret, he believes the agency simply doesn't want taxpayers to know the truth."
"...the average taxpayer understands there's no physical way to protect every single flight everywhere," the air marshal said. "But it's such a small percentage. It's just very aggravating for us"
Today, the number of air marshals TSA employs is in the thousands. We know this because we build the schedule and we assign these air marshals to flights all over the world each and every day.
"Sources inside the air marshal field offices told CNN that the program has been unable to stem the losses of trained air marshals since the program's numbers peaked in 2003."
Federal air marshal service attrition rates have been approximately 6.5 percent since the program expanded after 9/11. This isn't an exodus by any means and is comparable to other federal law enforcement agencies. The job does require extensive travel, a high level of alertness for hours on end and one of the highest firearms qualifications standards in government.
Being an air marshal isn't for everyone but that should not detract from the thousands of dedicated public servants out flying today and every day to protect the traveling public.
"They are whistling past the graveyard, hoping against hope that this house of cards that they call airline security doesn't come crashing down around them," said David Mackett, president of the Airline Pilots Security Alliance.
This insulting little sound bite discounts the dedicated service thousands of air marshals provide every day. While air marshals are an important layer of security, they are hardly the only thing stopping a terrorist from taking over an airplane. There are a full 20 layers of security, each vulnerable by itself but combined providing the highest level of security in the history of this nation.
"CNN was told staffing in Dallas, Texas for instance is down 44 percent from its high, while Seattle, Washington, has 40 percent fewer agents. Las Vegas, Nevada, which had as many as 245 air marshals, this past February had only 47."
Staffing in specific offices like Dallas, Seattle and Las Vegas has changed over the six years of the program BUT these air marshals have been shifted to other offices, not eliminated and not replaced.